The Superstition of Words

Superstition is acting as though a behavior will have some sort of causal influence on the world, even though it can be demonstrated it has no such effect. Superstitious behavior is learned when there is an apparent causal link between some action and a desired outcome; in sports these superstitions are cherished as part of overarching traditions, employed in a kind of tongue-in-cheek manner for the purpose of group solidarity. There are even times when a superstitions behavior is correlated to a desirable outcome, in the sense that it acts as a psychological primer for success. Some superstitions behaviors do have observable influence, save that they don’t have the influence attributed to them.

The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that it is possible to teach pigeons superstition, by simply exploiting how behaviors can be conditioned. Indeed, it is apparently more difficult to get pigeons to not be superstitious. When a desired outcome occurs, the association is immediately formed that whatever behavior was being done at that time must be the cause, and so the pigeon will continue to perform that behavior as long as it appears to be rewarded for it.

The same kind of conditioning takes place in humans as well, through the accidental association of certain behaviors and desirable outcomes. In particular, there tends to form a causal association between the use of certain words, or appeals to certain values, and the expected influence this is intended to have on someone’s behavior. Given influencing someone else’s behavior through our use of signs is always a relatively open ended affair, it is possible to note when someone is under the impression that another has not responded appropriately in the way desired when they choose to amplify the power of their signal.

This is related to the concept of token-phenomena distribution, in which a powerful word has its meaning extended to encompass a wider range of phenomena; at first the connoted seriousness provides a short term gain to using the word that way and pushing whatever sort of moral perspective one intends, but this strategy of debasing the specificity of words has diminishing, and eventually negative, returns. “Rape” is only one example of this kind of black magic. When people do not realize this is what is occurring, their first strategy is almost always to double down, suggesting that whoever resists their redefining of terms is simply stupid, ignorant, and/or evil. And so initially, when resistance is encountered to a redefinition of terms, simply saying the same thing with more force is the strategy enjoined. This will work a few times until others realize this is what is going on, and fail to be impressed or cowed by that strategy. You can only use the word “racist” to mean “generally all-around despicable person” so many times, but once that term is used to the point of cliché, it fails to have the same power.

Resistance to black magic requires overcoming the superstitious association of the word. In just the way a pigeon will continue the behavior it has accidentally associated with a desirable outcome, many people are stupid and don’t realize that the power a word used to hold has been lessened. They have been trained to think that an appeal to democracy is a crowd pleaser, so once they encounter someone truly anti-democratic, they don’t know how to make head nor tail of their rejection, because to them “democracy” always just meant the positive affirmation it yielded from others; they never really thought it through for its denotative content. (Think “Freedom, justice, and the American way.” What the hell does that even mean?)

The “early adopters” of denotative substantialism (let’s call this the position that “you shouldn’t separate a word’s exosemantic and connotative content from its denotative content”) will almost always encounter this superstitious resistance. In fact, many who would take up this kind of substantialism never do, because they are afraid of encountering resistance from the mass of people who find the connoted and exosemantic too useful to give up its use to someone who only wishes to insist on maintaining its denotative content. In this way “racist” has lost essentially all denotative meaning (survey your friends about what it means, and see how compatible those meanings are with all the ways it is actually used or what else it means for those engaging in merely empirical, positive scientific analysis), without anyone noticing because anybody who would care about the actual denotative meaning of racist is probably a racist himself anyway.

In much the same way the alleviating of Malthusian pressure sees the proliferation of individuals who are of lower than median fitness among the population (and of which a disproportionately small amount will survive the next meeting with the Malthusian ceiling), words stand under the same pressure. If there are no selective pressures on the use of words, maladapted uses of words proliferate and contribute to a breakdown of communication. Given the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of communication (like most things, we don’t notice something is getting worse until it completely breaks) it follows that small defections from the purpose of communication, rather than the politically opportune use of a word to attack opponents, can be used for a short time for political benefit. There is a limit to this, and eventually a sufficient amount of breakdown in the agreed use of words will lead to large scale defections and breaking of alliances which will see groups of people cease to be able to communicate effectively with one another their disagreements.

Serious and Not-So-Serious Rape: A Case Study in Black Magic

With the expansion of the legal definition of rape in California to include all instances in which consent was not, or could not, be affirmatively gained at each and every point in the progression of a sexual encounter, the willingness of men to exercise concern whenever a woman claims to be raped shall diminish even further. Leaving aside the obvious replies of women to the fact that male credulity is, surprisingly, not infinite, to men the reality is quite obvious. Very quickly, raise your hands if you’ve ever been on a date with a girl who said she had been raped in the past. Keep them up if she went to the cops.

That is the difference between serious and not-so-serious rape. In the past with a much stricter and rigorous definition of rape, rape might have always been serious, but with the expansion of the use of ‘rape’ to include any ambiguous sexual encounters which may be of an uncomfortable, but admittedly much less serious, nature, it just follows that the seriousness of rape per se tracks that of the particular crime we are calling “rape” today. In other words, sexual assault with the actual or threatened use of violence in order to coerce a woman into sexual performance is a serious crime; a man’s failure to notice a woman expressing non-verbal discomfort who yet goes along with the act might be legally defined as rape, but is to sane society somewhere in the grey territory of consent.

Now a feminist will insist that the same level of connoted seriousness surrounding rape must be applied to all those cases we are now, but not before, calling by the name of rape. It’s actually a pretty good sleight of hand, when you look at it from a distance. No one can rightly defend rape, therefore whatever is included under the name ‘rape’ is equally indefensible.

This is, however, black magic, and black magic is always the shaping of language which utilizes destruction for its purposes. In this case, the re-specification of rape to include a wider range of acts which it did not originally mean to a speaker or his audience, while it may have the short term gain of trading off the connotation associated with its prior usage, acting as a sort of depth charge to arguments justifying greater surveillance of sexuality by the state [and, increasingly, universities, but then these aren't really separate], will in the long term lead to rape being taken less seriously. People are resistant to having their views of the world rewritten just because some people started using a word in a way that no one else was. The token ‘rape,’ and by which I mean the specific symbolic representation whether in speech or writing, cannot force people to stop differentiating between more and less serious forms of sexual assault and/or ambiguity. People will still acknowledge that the seriousness of a violent sexual assault is not equivalent to an ambiguous sexual encounter; the equivalence of the token used to express the range of acts which fall between the merely uncomfortable to the truly traumatic cannot force people to perceive an equivalence of seriousness. As such, the use of the word ‘rape’ to describe everything from the mundane to the shocking trivializes actually violent sexual assault while simultaneously demonizing those men who happen to ever find themselves in an ambiguous sexual encounter.

If you’ll excuse the lack of precision, I’ve made the following illustrations to help show what I mean in graphical form:


Token-Phenomena Distribution

x shows the distribution of phenomena understood to be referred to by that given token, x’ shows a permutation of its usage so as to refer to a wider range of phenomena. Note that the mean seriousness of x’ is lower than x. What people understand to be meant by x’ differs from x, with the association of the left and right tails encompassing the edge cases rather than the paradigmatic case. Whereas x more specifically meant a much more seriously connoted act, x’ connotes a less serious act; it is the paradigm cases to which the average individual refers in his usage of words. As such, x’ is less useful than x in the sense of expressing a specific range of actions about which we might more directly engage without requiring that more specific adumbration.

In the case of ‘rape’ it may be noted that the feminist use is represented more by x’ than x; it is also x’ which is less useful as a technical term of art. x’ bridges the not-so-serious to the serious, whereas with x there was less ambiguity in the use of the token. Hence the present requirement that, whenever a woman begins talking about rape, whatever it is, we ask what she actually means; and if she claims she was ‘raped,’ we are now forced to ask further questions so as to discern whether it was a serious or not-so-serious rape.

The previous usage of ‘rape’ had no such affliction, but due to feminist engineering of the term ‘rape’ is now a vast territory of semantic ambiguity through which many errors in reasoning may flow. Being such a vast territory, it will accordingly be taken less seriously as it becomes subject to memetic decay. That is just what over-use will do to anything. It ceases to have as much impact and will even invite suspicion of those using the word in an academic or personal sense, given the recognition that being such a slippery term it often signals the use of even slipperier reasoning. Women are educated to hastily identify some awkward sexual experience as rape, trivializing the experience of those women who suffer actual trauma and also leaving men with the impression that women almost always use the claim of ‘rape’ as a mere means of gaining attention.

Democracy is Stupid

A reason to prefer monarchy is that, in the long run, it tends to provide more societies overall with smarter, wiser, more benevolent (from the right perspective) rulers. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the claim that, always and everywhere, a monarch will be smart, wise, and benevolent; rather, assuming a process of selection, through selective descent of surviving monarchies those families which are best able to concentrate power, and maintain it in their bloodlines’ hands, will also be smarter, wiser, and more benevolent ceteris paribus. The alignment of society’s and royal families’ interests is what allows the traits of intelligence, wisdom, and benevolence to become traits which are selected for through competition. This is as opposed to democratically elected representatives, who are selected increasingly for sociopathic ambition, solipsistic callous, willingness to toe the party line, and these days, political correctness.

This suggests that an indispensable element of explaining current politics, especially in terms of historical comparison, is that our rulers are just, on average, stupid. This is not to discount all other explanatory causes which complete the picture, but it remains that the lower average intelligence of our rulers, as compared to that of monarchies in the Medieval and Modern periods, has a non-negligible effect on the administration of governance.

In general, what are the effects of lower intelligence vis-à-vis higher intelligence? More mistakes made for a lack of foresight, lower ability to draw insight from experience, and lower ability to vet the competency of those around you. This last is especially important, as the task of rulers is almost entirely composed of deferring the exercise of power to a delegate party. Even a small difference in ability to discern competency leaves the room that much wider for a dilettante to rise through the ranks through sheer bluff in combination with an orientation or trait that makes them the darling of the ruling ideology.

The short of it is just that democratically elected representatives will tend to be stupider. This isn’t a difficult task for observation: recordings of outright gaffes and errors by politicians are numerous. It isn’t rare to find simple fallacies being used at the federal level, where you would otherwise expect our leaders to be the smartest. While it remains that democratic politicians will still be smarter on average, the leeway for political success which would initially allow charismatic if otherwise not-so-intelligent politicians to set forth policy changes in the selection of leadership or voter influence could set the mean politicians’ IQ on a terminal decline. Such a process is probably endemic to democracy itself. Either way, there seems to be a negative feedback loop in place; stupid politicians pave the way for stupider politicians who pave the way for even stupider politicians.

Such a process could, after a few human generations, produce highly charismatic yet incredibly moronic leaders. Such a leader would be susceptible to admitting of very obvious contradictions, intellectual shortcomings, and lack of mental aptitude provided even moderate stimulus forcing him to rely on his intelligence spontaneously. Of course, as a charismatic leader, his use of non sequitor and emotional persuasion won’t be noticed by the mass, but a little training reveals that politicians’ statements are riddled with inconsistencies. An intelligent individual with a well-formed weltanschauung should be able to produce a consistent explanation of his understanding spontaneously and without need for drawing on the research of others, but we repeatedly find politicians aren’t able to manage a more profound understanding of issues than slogans even in private company.

Furthermore, there is also the process taking place in which the actual work of politicians is being gradually ceded to other public and private interests. The impetus for writing bills, and the actual work that goes into drafting legislation, is almost entirely taken care of by the staff of politicians or other parties with a vested interest in the legislation, be that businesses or NGOs. The job of a democratic politician may be summarized in its essence as voting in Congress a few times and making public appearances for his constituents; he may, and most likely will, go on to do other things while in office, but this out of ambition more than any necessity to the job.

Given a sufficiently calcified democratic process, not only the positions of low tier Senators but perhaps even the presidency could, in essential function, be entirely taken over by public servants and these vested interests. Not only is the barrier to entry in a democratic political system lower, but external interests have the incentive to persuade the government to relax its own standards so as to more easily place their own people into those positions. This together with the other effects creates the perfect condition for a total plebe to rise through the ranks on nothing but the ability to exude a little charisma and generally be the darling of the polity’s ideology.

An Ontology of the Troll

Trolling is not exclusively an internet phenomenon, though it is the easiest realm in which to identify and analyze the activity of trolling. The purpose of trolling, in most places and times, is the provoking of irrational responses to an action not undertaken in good faith. The gathering together of ideologically and religiously aligned individuals in discussion spaces on the internet gave the impetus for the development of trolling as a means of uncovering systematic ignorance, particularly that which is the product of self-deception. Trolling fundamentally relies on the possibility of provoking that irrational response, and that irrational response is only possible in principle provided an action may be taken which is understood by the troll to be likely to result in such an irrational response. Note that statements of mere outrage do not pass as instances of trolling, even if said statements garner irrational response from the [internet] community. Likewise, a given action or statement need not even be in contradistinction to the troll’s earnestly held beliefs at the level of integral understanding. The principle distinction of actions taken which may be defined as trolling is the intent of provocation.

What is the purpose of provocation? Historically, the benefit of provocation is that it covers up the source of difficulty and gives [what is sometimes an actually justified] casus belli to the attacking of the provoked individual, whether with literal military power or mere social approbation. It is why we recognize such a thing as “fightin’ words” and consequently hold a person less responsible for acting on such instances of provocation, even if we would still maintain the proper response does not involve irrational outrage.

The particular use of provocation by the troll does not, however, ever actually resemble “fightin’ words.” It appears that rising to such a level of provocation disqualifies something as trolling, in the sense that it reveals no ignorance. That ignorance can reasonably fall into the category of honest mistakes about what to expect of a given social order, and so the ignorance per se is not a matter of moral or disordered epistemic practice. In this sense, provoking a reaction rooted in an ignorance which only amounts to expecting too much charity and/or earnestness by all people acts as a lesson to the individual which may be quickly learned and integrated into their behavior. On the other hand, people who don’t learn the lesson will continue to be provoked to reveal their ignorance by trolls. The positive function of trolling in this regard is that it reveals who is unable to adapt to the social norms of internet space, with the resultant ordering of online communities so that those who are most susceptible to trolling are not given the privileges associated with the responsibilities that go along with maintaining an internet community.

Before moving on, we may identify the necessary features of trolling as this:

  1. Behavior or statement intended to provoke
  2. Irrational response
  3. As a result of ignorance

The ignorance frequently involves the norms associated with an online community. In turn, trolling which seeks out internet communities reveals the ignorance of too readily expecting good faith in an opponent. Those who are targeted are usually those members of belief systems considered to be largely “beneath refutation,” in the sense that the trolling has become the only worthwhile form of interaction. Not all trolling by this understanding is necessarily positive or just, but we note be that as it may, an ethics of trolling depends on first describing its ontology.

Also worth noting is that the actions and behaviors which constitute trolling may be denotatively identical to the earnestly held belief of some individual in the world. Hence the phenomenon of “can’t tell if troll or just stupid.” This represents the difficulty, and thus the excellence, of trolling; the purpose is to say something most nearly approximating the earnestly held belief of someone [even if that someone is oneself] so as to provoke the irrational response in a way that those aligned with the troll can ascertain the ignorance in the trollee which founds that irrational response.

This allows us to identify those situations which are most susceptible to trolling. Communities founded around the irrational praise of some value are easy to exploit, as they wear their ignorance on their sleeve [a good example of such a community is I Fucking Love Science]. The people who are likely to make IFLS a website they visit daily, or even frequently find themselves clicking links to, also tend to self-select for general ignorance of scientific methodology, philosophy of science, the current science of certain fields, and so on, making them easy dupes where those are significant matters in a given scientific topic.

When ignorance is the result of self-deception, trolling in those cases takes on a political dimension. One is demonstrating not only an individual’s ignorance, but the problems underlying a belief system as instantiated by its adherents. The possibility of trolling, we note, entails nothing per se about the belief system, but those belief systems which set themselves at odds with factual reality will produce members who are very easy to provoke into irrational responses. After all, a belief system when confronted with a fact which ostensibly falsifies it has nowhere to turn except sophistry and moral offense. This is also the most likely place to find “truth trolling,” wherein an individual expresses a fact or his own actually held belief; this is possible because belief system self-deception is blind to its own failure of evaluation, leading immediately to outrage in confrontation with someone who holds a belief which cannot be rationally evaluated from that belief system. This form of trolling is less intended to persuade the trollee but, in making the trollee look a fool, persuade the audience. It is very akin to ad hominem, save that it allows the trolled to out themselves as incapable of reasoning dispassionately by which any argument they do produce can be dismissed.

Trolling as a tool of philosophical inquiry is most useful for exposing sophistry. Sophistry, by nature, intends only to cover up and evades being pinned down to any specific claim about the world. Such a project necessarily leads to the supposition of contradictions, as those contradictions are necessary to the evasion of specific claims. Winding a discussion so as to reveal the contradictions, or even to heighten them, is what trolling will do in this case. Trolling is a tradition of philosophy, at least if we are to consider Socrates a philosopher. Forcing out the contradiction, that logically irrational response of x and not-x, is the philosophical excellence of trolling. But it is only a specific instance thereof.

As a rhetorical tactic, trolling is neither good nor evil in and of itself. However, given its nature of plausible deniability and passive-aggressiveness, it is most useful to those who find themselves having a minority opinion. The majority opinion, as always and everywhere, faces less incentive to form itself with rigor; after all, most defenses of feminism these days do seem nothing more than “call an opinion you don’t like sexist, get high fives.” This makes the majority opinion extremely susceptible to trolling, which is most likely why the majority will eventually start to consider trolling, among other forms of speech which it doesn’t already control, not under the protection of “free speech.”

Undoubtedly the argument will be that trolling is a form of assault, which will incentivize the production of hurt feelings over rational response, which will make the majority opinion even more susceptible to trolling [to the point that people will undoubtedly “accidentally” troll and then find themselves being forced to apologize, to undertake re-education, to seek professional “help,” and so on]; the increasingly vapid defenses of progressivism as-it-exists-today will warrant the encounter of increasingly mild dissent which gets punished as “trolling.”

Linguistic Functional-Fixedness

The meaning we intend by our use of words is always heuristical. Seeing two people talking over each other is a common enough phenomenon to easily illustrate the point. One person might use murder to mean “the killing of a human being” while another might have the more specific meaning of “the unjustified killing of a human being.” Neither person is per se correct whereas the other is wrong, though it is obviously arguable that there are better and worse uses of words. Sticking to the former definition and never allowing oneself to understand that many others use murder in the latter sense will make one fail to understand a lot of ethics or misinterpret a lot of law. Likewise, one imagines a pro-choice person saying to a pro-life person holding up a placard saying “Abortion is murder” merely admitting that sometimes murder is justified, but if we assume the pro-lifer in this case was intending the latter definition, this would be interpreted as a flat contradiction, i.e. it ends up meaning “sometimes the unjustified killing of a human being is justified.”

There is an experiment in developmental psychology which observes a phenomenon called “functional-fixedness,” which is highly relevant to this meaning fixation. This is the Candle Problem, and it tends to reveal a positive correlation between age and functional-fixedness. It is, surprisingly, young children who, being less ingrained in the notion that a box with tacks in it is only meant as a container for tacks, are better able to solve the Candle Problem. Note that this is a spatial cognitive problem; what of verbal problems? Words, after all, operate as functions, and so the lesson translates from spatial to verbal problem solving. Many jokes, and more specifically, the pun, trade on this functional-fixedness, provoking the response of laughter in the recognition of the surprising juxtaposition.

One observes in adults a fixation on the use of words up to the point that they become unable to reason about the phenomenon in question coherently, due to the presence of certain exosemantic signs which they overtly associate with the bad tribe. Inability to distinguish between denotative and exosemantic [let alone connotative] uses of words has proven the cause of many logical fallacies. To wit, the following propositions:

  1. Black people shouldn’t vote
  2. Women shouldn’t vote
  3. Children shouldn’t vote

Regular readers of my blog know I’m up to something here, so I imagine they will refrain from passing judgment. However, note that the use of these propositions will tend to leave the majority of individuals with the impression that I’m racist and sexist, while admitting that the third proposition may be entirely reasonable. What’s going on here? A kind of ideological fixation, which takes the presumption that “government authority is legitimated by the voting of the people” is the only reasonable view to hold, and through which the prior propositions are interpreted.

As it is, I don’t believe anyone should vote. The above propositions are only particular instances of an otherwise universal proposition I adhere to, namely “The people shouldn’t vote.” Nothing but my anti-democratic political stance has been revealed; per strict logical inference, there is nothing in the above propositions to warrant the claim I adhere to any particular claims or racial or sexual segregation in society.

Keep in mind that people are surprisingly bad at lateral spatial problem solving. Do you think people are any better at lateral verbal problem solving? This is perhaps another way of pointing out how our observation is theory-laden; we do not see the box as a roughly cubical construct per se, but as a particular function. Extricating the objective properties of the box from the subjective interpretation proves surprisingly difficult [I wasn’t able to solve the Candle Problem without someone at least hinting that the box might serve other purposes than as a mere container for the tacks]. The difficult of extricating subjective interpretation from objective properties is very difficult when we are at the fringe of experience. Given everyday experience with some particular way of problem solving, we can become very good at it; it is also why we don’t tend to notice most people are actually just really stupid [and especially not our own stupidity] until we are confronted with a problem not from the everyday. Frequently, we’re not even very good at knowing how or why we understand what we do understand; if you’re confronted with a person unable to solve what you consider something common sense dictates the answer, would you know how to explain to that person the principles underlying the dictate of common sense?

This is the problem of ideology. People who do not share your ideological presuppositions, especially those which you take as “common sense,” appear to be at the fringe in a way which you are unable to understand, and you frequently can only ask “Why don’t you fucking get it? Racial discrimination is just bad per se, duh.” [It isn’t usually said to me in such a kind way, I’ll note.] In just the same way people are unprepared for solving problems at the fringe of everyday experience, people are equally unprepared for recognizing the perspective of those who do not share their presuppositions. The presuppositions are, for all intents and purposes, experientially fixed; the presupposition isn’t something to be observed, because it is just one of the principles necessary for understanding what occurs in the world. This is the same difficulty which presents itself in science. How do you get around your previously fixed understanding, to remove your subjective interpretation so that you can produce a means which will corroborate or falsify a given hypothesis? Indeed, even beginning to understand your presuppositions as hypotheses in the first place is a problem at the fringe of the everyday.

Working around our own ideological, philosophical, and/or rationality functional-fixedness might be taken as the project of LessWrong [and it explains the high degree of overlap between neoreaction and LessWrong; methods of rationality which uproot previously unscrutinized presuppositions can just as likely uproot political presuppositions [which makes one ask why so many LWers are leftist]]. Developing signs to corroborate or falsify the thesis that someone is truly able to understand the presuppositions of the in-group is a fundamental feature of human nature, a heuristic we abide by because, at the end of the day, we are social creatures before we are rational creatures. Putting together signs which align the social and the rational might be considered a take on Leibniz’ characteristica universalis. Invoking functional-fixedness as a feature of understanding and realizing it is a rational and linguistic blind spot is almost always necessary for bootstrapping oneself out of what one was taught to believe. Education is as likely a prison as it is liberating, but we can’t not teach our children something; thus the thorny knot of rationality.

The Principles of Sorcery

Sorcery: an attempt to understand, experience and influence the world using rituals, symbols, actions, gestures and language.

Given this definition of sorcery, the existence of such is clear and obvious. An even simpler definition than the above taken from Wikipedia would be “intending causal impact on reality via the use of signs.” Put out of mind the conception of sorcery having some sort of psychokinetic effect, where an incantation, perhaps in conjunction with some instrument like a wand, influences inanimate matter directly. However, do keep in mind the ability to influence reality through the use of words. Sorcery is, in reality, quite a mundane affair once you realize exactly how it works. Here are some illustrations where the mere use of signs has an obvious causal impact on reality.

  1. Shout “Fire!” in a theater.
  2. Brandish a firearm to someone and say “Your money or your life.”
  3. Call your mother a cunt.
  4. A red octagonal sheet of metal with “STOP” printed on it.

I didn’t say that sorcery would necessarily be exciting. In fact, we only disbelieve in sorcery for having a wrong theory of it, namely that it is something out of the ordinary. In reality, sorcery is mundane. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is a branch of sorcery. Propaganda is another. Any use of signs which has an effect on people’s behavior is an instance of sorcery; in other words, we influence reality through the use of signs in the sense that people are, after all, part of reality. And if you have the ability to influence people, then you also have at least some level of ability to have causal impact on inanimate matter as well.

An obvious question presents itself: if all I mean is that signs influence human behavior, what’s the significance in calling it sorcery? Good question! You see, what you are currently doing is reading and allowing yourself to be influenced by my use of signs, and I would like you to associate the more fantastic elements of sorcery with our manipulation of symbols, particularly language. What I am proposing is a theory of sorcery; it may not be a 15th century folk theory of sorcery, which evokes images of wizened old men in towers muttering incantations written in dusty tomes in order to call down hail and famine on enemies, but when one considers the abstract elements we associate with sorcery, we shall be forced to conclude that sorcery is real.

What are the abstract principles of sorcery? Not referring to concrete objects such as wands and crystals, but the elements we understand to be associated with the use of signs to influence reality. Our implicit theory of the abstract principles of sorcery is, after all, what allows us to understand some given narrative or account to invoke some theory of magic, fictional or not. In fictional universes, we understand what is and isn’t magic by distinguishing between what involves those elements and what does not. For instance, in Harry Potter the incantation wingardium leviosa in conjunction with the artful use of a wand produces the effect of levitating objects. We recognize such to be an instance of magic due to that implicit theory. But, from the abstract point of view, how is this different from achieving the levitation of an object by saying to someone “Can you lift that for me?” Both involve an incantation and an artful behavior, perhaps pointing with a finger. The results are the same and nothing is different in the abstract sense. It just so happens to be the case that in our world, which isn’t the universe of Harry Potter, you can’t influence reality by saying wingardium leviosa and the artful swish and flick of a wand. We occupy a universe in which the laws of sorcery operate by other means.

The abstract principles we associate with sorcery appear to be these:

  1. Agency
  2. Signal
  3. Instrument

Stripped down to this merest understanding of sorcery, we are able to suggest a study of sorcery which elides the ostensibly supernatural element while preserving the understanding of the potential for sorcery to achieve the fantastic. It can be admitted that most sorcery, e.g. everyday communication, everyday signs, everyday norms of interpersonal exchange, is mundane, but nonetheless involves causal influence over reality by the use of signs. From this perspective, we are also better able to identify powerful wizardry. Given the mundaneness of sorcery, it should be noted that one instance is best understood as part of a concerted effort towards some particular goal. That is, most goals which are of profound scope require intense and prolonged energies. Indeed, most effort expended towards achieving profound goals is ultimately unsuccessful. The more powerful the sorcery, the more difficult it is to pull off. That said, we can identify those features which we readily associate with the greater power to influence reality, i.e. influence people’s behaviors.

Consider: for any given opinion editorial [incantation], do you believe it will achieve more profound effect were it published in the New York Times or the Duluth News Tribune? The former clearly has greater potential for influencing minds. Quite literally, the same exact text by the exact same person will have greater influence merely by being published in the New York Times than it would in the Duluth News Tribune. Therefore, we must admit that the New York Times is a powerful instrument of sorcery, whereas the Duluth News Tribune is not [but then, the Duluth News Tribune remains a more powerful instrument of sorcery than the average blog; it's relative].

Why is this? The New York Times is considered authoritative. The idea of journalistic excellence is an epistemic shortcut; if it’s published in the New York Times, it’s more likely true and/or a good idea. The same idea, were it proposed on a random blog’s comment section, would not have the same influence, despite having the same denotational content. There is more to sorcery than merely what one says. The use of instruments [in this case, an institution] is indispensable to powerful wizardry.

This only barely scratches the surface. The diverse means of influencing minds, of influencing people’s behavior, is as complex as society. Society is, quite literally, magical. It is strung together by our ability to cooperate assisted by the use of signs and the artful use of instruments. To discount language as mere words is to fail to see the profound effects it has had on reality.

The Presumption of Racism

Antony Flew, a celebrated 20th century philosopher, put forth an argument in favor of atheism which states, roughly, that in the absence of any clear evidence for theism, atheism is the rational presumption. I would quibble with this argument, for such a presumption is inherently tied to a positivist view and simply fails to take the idea of God seriously [Flew, it is worth noting, later became a theist after engaging with Aristotle]. However, this model of presumption that lacking evidence for some specific thesis is evidence enough to establish the rationality of disbelief is not necessarily flawed with respect to theses of a less metaphysical scope. For instance, a presumption of “There are no invisible pink unicorns on the dark side of the moon” is something we would consider reasonable, and it would require extremely different metaphysical priors for a nearly-certain probability to not be assigned to that belief. We might consider instances of failure to appropriately weigh negatives to highly specific, highly unlikely instances indicative of a general failure of rationality. That is, such a failure at the fringe might be considered akin to debugging; if you’re unable to both state what would constitute evidence of such a unicorn and to then elaborate on why it would be so unlikely to find evidence of such, you are unlikely to have a solid grasp on sound principles of methodological analysis.

On the other hand, if we were to find such a unicorn on the dark side of the moon, this would highlight that our ordinarily functional rationality has a large blind spot. But, assuming there is no such blind spot [in this specific area of our rational periphery], it proves itself a useful kind of test.

Granted, it is likely almost no one wouldn’t be willing to weight the negative thesis with near-certain probability; it illustrates a principle at an extreme degree. We may also apply such forms of “rational debugging” on other people in more specific ways. It is very easy to have a view of the world which allows one to conclude the near-certain improbability of unicorns being on the dark side of the moon; it is much more difficult to elucidate complex social systems. Consider the following description, which will function as a kind of theoretical litmus test in which I have removed certain key elements.

A specific subpopulation of the greater society is disproportionately represented in prisons.

The explanation you’re likely to reach for is likely to reveal your ideological priors. There are two positive theses which present themselves as likely explanations: either this represents something innate of that population, or it demonstrates that the greater society has a bias towards putting members of that subpopulation in prison. Both of these explanations have concrete instances we can conceive which would serve to verify either of these hypotheses. Those who would tend to offer either explanation and then stick to it despite further information are revealed to have a defect in their rationality; in reality, the above description isn’t sufficient to verify either explanation. The proper response is to admit of both possibilities with an agnosticism dependent on further information, if forthcoming [with a caveat that this might still warrant avoiding that subpopulation if you are unable to access further information].

If the specific subpopulation in question were men, who are indeed disproportionately represented in prison, we are likely to accept the former explanation. That there are more men in prison compared to women is explained by their being innately more aggressive and having a lower aversion to risk, traits which lend themselves to a higher likelihood of criminality. At the same time, we also notice that men are likely to receive harsher sentences than women for the same crimes, which we attribute to this innateness; the more likely a specific subpopulation is to exhibit criminality, the harsher the punishments must be in order to act as a stronger deterrent of that behavior.

Now consider if the specific subpopulation we were speaking of are blacks. Whereas the explanation for why men as a group are more likely to be in prison than women is explained by innate differences, the suggestion that disproportionate representation by blacks is due to innate differences is racist. There is, in other words, a kind of presumption in favor of racism we exercise which we don’t exercise when it comes to men. This isn’t necessarily an indicator of a failure of rationality. After all, we do recognize cases where certain populations are prejudicially incarcerated and overall persecuted. The Nazis persecuted the Jews, Rome persecuted Christians, the Catholic Church persecuted the occasional atheist, Christians persecuted Muslims, Muslims persecuted Christians, so on and so forth for almost every potential pairing of groups. If we find a disproportionate representation of Christians in prison in a self-proclaimed secularistic society, the only innate factor we might attribute to the Christians in this case is a religious zealotry, but not innate factors that make them otherwise predisposed to criminality under sane conditions of legal jurisdiction.

However, our means of distinguishing between which hypothesis serves to explain the disproportionate representation of a subpopulation in prison requires the elucidation of a theory which allows us to test for the mechanisms in place which verify the former or latter hypothesis. If one takes the mere fact of disproportionate representation as proof of unjustified discrimination [disproportionate representation by a group can also occur due to justified discrimination, e.g. those employed by NASA are disproportionately represented by those of 125+ IQ, and with good reason], then we must be forced to conclude that the disproportionate representation by men in prison is not due to innate traits such as greater mean aggression and lower mean risk-aversion, but is the result of a mere prejudice.

After all, the feminists do tell us that women are psychologically essentially the same as men, and criminality is a psychological trait. Either men are overly represented and/or women are underrepresented. Indeed, there are some feminists who even make the argument that patriarchy is a net disadvantage to men, with only a minority of men being benefited; this could be evidence of just such a patriarchy. I don’t know how this male-female disparity could be solved, but it’s worth pointing out that this disparity stands in need of a rigorous, scientific justification.

That said, many would still, and quite reasonably, remain with the hypothesis that men just are more innately prone to criminal behavior. Vis-à-vis criminality, men have a higher mean than women, which is explained by simple biology. Once you accept such an explanation, however, this same theory could also explain the disproportionate representation of blacks in prison. At least in principle, if the theory is sound in terms of explaining the gender disparity, it may explain other group disparities such as racial disparity.

If we are to distinguish between biological and social reasons for group disparities, then we must have some way of measuring those differences. Biological differences in psychology appear to be measurable; for example, exhibited time preference in young children has a correlation to life outcomes. If we are willing to accept that this experiment documents a real, genetically influenced trait, this presents a very simple means of finding evidence for weighing the difference between biological and social means of explaining racial disparities [it must at least document something strongly ingrained by the age of the children being observed]. If no significant difference is found between children by race, this is evidence in favor of the social hypothesis; on the other hand, if there are significant disparities found between race, and those disparities also happens to approximate the differences we find elsewhere in society, that is evidence in favor of the biological hypothesis. [I’m aware of potentially confounding factors; for instance, there was a high correlation between socioeconomic status and ability to delay gratification. This might potentially be explained by the conditions of poverty socializing a child into lower ability to delay gratification. However, this can be controlled for by simply comparing children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. If anyone can find a study which does so, please send it my way; I searched my usual academic sources and could find nothing.]

Back to Flew and his presumption of atheism. Borrowing a parable from John Wisdom, he writes:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they, set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not he seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”


Growing to Fail

There are 2 conditions required for games to reach positive evolutionarily stable equilibrium:

  1. Personal and collective interest are aligned with each other
  2. Cooperation has positive-sum gains for players

When speaking of society, which might be described as a conjunction of different games all operating simultaneously, we have generally struck upon positive evolutionarily stable equilibria; had we not, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. The more people in a society tend to cooperate, the greater the collective gain. This is why the tendencies of individuals, with even a slight shift of their game theoretic strategies, can do so much to explain the differences between the prosperity of societies. Why is the United States so much wealthier than Liberia? At least, perhaps the greatest part, of the explanation has to do with how likely individuals are to cooperate. In a society such as Liberia, there is simply more defection taking place, which wears at the possibility of an industrial ascendancy. Then again, within a society such as Liberia and given one’s own personal assets (e.g. little to nothing), defect strategies are the most rational strategy for at least a great deal of individual players. (Both conservatives and liberals would do well to remember this point. When everyone’s defecting, your personally optimal strategy is defection.)

Not all positive evolutionarily stable equilibria are as positive as others. On the other hand, a society such as Liberia, which is more effectively individualized (i.e. individuals are more able to survive on their own without having to depend on others’ cooperation), is also much more resilient to global, or external, shocks. The right confluence of disasters, natural, economic, and social could cause a larger decline, or even collapse, of US society. Liberia, on the other hand, is relatively resilient. Sure, Liberia has less to lose in an absolute sense, and undoubtedly a collapse of global networks would wreak some havoc, but it is more likely that the equilibrium which holds at present in Liberia will re-emerge more quickly than the equilibrium we have in the US.

Humans, as social creatures, are dependent on integration with a group for reproductive success, and in probably most cases, for survival. We are evolved to be ready to cooperate and to expect cooperation from others who have sufficiently signaled their parallel intentions. A stabler society in which defection is less frequent is a society in which it makes more sense to individually invest in highly specific forms of labor which, outside the ability to trade that labor for highly liquid assets (i.e. cash), no such investment would ever occur. At the same time, this makes that individual even more dependent on the cooperation of others for achieving his goals. However, we seem to have struck a balance that has allowed such a proliferation of specialization, and many have brought themselves out of poverty through this macroscale effort at cooperation.

The coordination of so many individuals spontaneously is not, and can never be, overseen by any intelligence short of omniscience. Society is not the product of intelligent design, but just like our own bodies, is the result of natural selection. What is being selected for? Spontaneous means of playing the games that constitute society in a way which is most likely to produce positive evolutionarily stable equilibria. Those forms of society which are, by comparison, relatively disordered shall inevitably be selected out, some quicker than others. Given the dependence of humans on each other for survival and reproduction, a large decline or even a collapse of society would not entail the end of humanity, only a meaner existence nearer the soil.

There is a problem to positive-sum games. Provided an evolutionarily stable equilibrium takes hold, such a society shall tend to grow until it is confronted with a higher-order game that its forms of coordination (e.g. social norms) are not adapted to. With growth comes increasing complexity, increasing complexity entails more sophisticated games which are, in many ways, beyond the ability of individuals to perceive, let alone begin to solve. And even were a solution to be known (“everyone should cooperate by doing x!”) it is generally impossible to arrange for everyone to spontaneously begin cooperating in this way except through a centralized fiat, and even then there are strong limits to what that can achieve (the anarchist in me wishes to note that the centralization of a particular social response may eventually prove evolutionarily outmoded, e.g. the future might be stateless). The initial growth of the society secured by its maintaining the requisite social norms inevitably places it in a confrontation with a collective action problem those initial social norms are not adapted to, and nor are these social norms capable of instilling a new coordination which will prove a positive evolutionarily stable equilibrium in response. The doom of a civilization is written into the social norms that first allow it to rise.

At some point one or both of the conditions necessary for positive evolutionarily stable equilibria are unable to hold. Personal and collective interests diverge, or cooperation ceases to have positive-sum gains for both players. There is nothing in the world that guarantees both of these conditions shall hold indefinitely. If a new technology to increase economic productivity in proportion to population growth isn’t forthcoming, then at the very least the potential for materially positive-sum games is vastly diminished (there may be localized deviations from a net zero- or negative-sum of games). New technologies may even disrupt the regeneration of social norms in new generations, if children’s and parents’ interests diverge, which brings about more divergences (especially in intersexual relations; we can’t forget, nor is it useful to pathologize, that men and women have innately competing personal interests, i.e. polygyny vs hypergamy). The tendency towards lowering time preferences which is otherwise exhibited by long-lived institutions or series of generations will ironically frustrate the attempt to do so when a fitness valley is reached and the proper response isn’t available to the group.

Game Theory, Carcinisation, and the Omega Point

Game Theory, Carcinisation, and the Omega Point

Game theory: study of strategic decision making.

Carcinisation: a hypothesised process whereby a crustacean evolves into a crab-like form from a non-crab-like form.

Omega Point: the purported maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which some believe the universe is evolving. The term was coined by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Humans are a very strange creature compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. The primary form of competition and selection is imposed on an individual by his own, or another’s, society. While the occasional extraordinary natural disaster in the form of a tornado, earthquake, viral epidemic, and so on wreak their havoc on humans and human societies, for the most part we have mastered the forces of Nature, at least insofar as we consider those forces external to human society. The primary source of evolutionary selection for the human race, since the dawn of civilization (perhaps even before that; maybe even at the Dawn of Man [if you’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, well… take some acid and watch that asap]) has been imposed by humans themselves on each other. You are less likely to be impeded in your success at sexual reproduction by merely natural forces than by the social systems which evaluate your sexual and moral worth as a human being.

This suggests that the limits of our growth as a society is imposed less by mere forces of physics and biology, which we have found ways of working around or even incorporating to our advantage (not to discount that they remain hard limits), but by the problems of coordinating many rational actors. Not all spontaneous actions undertaken by individuals, whether they impose a burden to the individual or propose a benefit, are aligned with the collective’s survival. At times, the individual’s personal interests and collective interests are perfectly aligned, and we do not need to augment their implicit game theoretic strategy through incentive structures, but at other times we are only able to develop stable Nash equilibria for the collective action problems facing societies through elaborate traditions which punish defectors and punish those who won’t punish the defectors in ways that are difficult to detect for the uninitiated. Over time, as we gain more and more mastery of physical and biological nature, we shall brush up all the more fiercely and intensely with the limits of the collective action solutions we have yet been able to maintain. Many times, there is a cycle of integration and disintegration, wedded to the dynamics of population, conflict, and production, which sees simpler collective action problems find solutions, but this bumps the problem back another step and introduces the nascent society to higher-order collective action problems it has never been confronted with. This is a fancy way of saying that, once one problem becomes solved, the growth of social complexity eventually outstrips the ability of the initial solutions to cope, and society declines.

From a far enough perspective, however, these oscillations between social integration and disintegration yet suggest an upward arc. As Teilhard declares, “All that rises must converge.” While this seems an apparently Progressive kind of thing to say, it actually forms an inversion of the Progressive eschatology. Given Teilhard’s Catholicism, this is perhaps unsurprising. Is he right?

At the end of the day, there is almost always only one optimal solution. While some solutions to a given problem may be adequate for its time and place, a superior solution will eventually outcompete and displace that initial solution. At times, that initial solution is a necessary step in the production of the later optimal solution. This the dialectic of evolution, which whittles forms down to those best able to propagate themselves over time. Given the reality that along even a very high n-dimensional axis there shall always be a tendency towards equilibrium, this suggests that over time social beings tend to one particular form. In other words, given an infinite amount of time and assuming a continuous chain of being, there can only emerge one inevitable form.

Within limited and specific conditions, game theory predicts that particular games have one inevitably optimal solution. Assuming players of a game form a group, over time those groups which achieve greater game theoretic evolutionarily stable equilibria shall remain. For instance, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma optimal solution is the strategy of tit-for-tat; initially cooperate, but respond to defection with your own defection. Over time, and assuming a competent player, cooperation should become the norm. This cooperation in real life situations that approximately model this dilemma expands the territory, and in expanding the territory introduces new means of interacting and playing the game, producing the need for a more complex strategy. However, in all cases there shall tend to be a convergence; each game, no matter how complex, has one optimal strategy. (In the case of different strategies which, for that particular game optimize to equally maximal outcomes, keep in mind that in society the solving of one game introduces another game which needs to be solved; these consequent game chains are what will select for those that produce optimization at higher orders.)

All of this is to say that, ultimately, the universe is set up so as to select for some particular optimal game theoretic strategy employed by societies, which in turn makes it inevitable that there is one best form of society which will inevitably outcompete and displace all others. This “final” society, or conglomeration of self-propagating forms found at the end of time, is the hypothetical Omega Point. Whether one would like to call it equilibrium or teleology, it is suggestive of something (you don’t need to buy into Teilhard’s speculations that this Omega Point is God, but he is certainly right to point out this maximal level of complexity/consciousness is particular). From the perspective of God, whatever the universe is, given interactive social individuals have only one way to proceed forward (or else be selected out), the universe is an Omega Point making machine. From a certain perspective, the end of time operates to draw the universe to it as much as the beginning of time pushes the universe.

Malthus isn’t Dead: Population, Productivity, and Decline

Malthus, writing in the late 18th and early 19th century, struck upon a salient, elegant, and horrific socioeconomic theory. Assuming a fixed level of productivity, growth in population would drive down wages (more labor supply = lower wages) and increase rent (more housing demand = higher prices). Inevitably, this would result in widespread poverty and misery, since short of just killing a lot of people, the high demand for basic necessities will make them expensive relative the wage the average individual is able to draw. Granted, if you are one who owns the means of production, low wages and high rent is a formula for great and fabulous wealth (and so these periods tend to bring out the greatest wealth inequalities); but for the rest, short of an increase in economic productivity, the pie isn’t getting any bigger and the slices keep getting smaller.

This lends itself to a “Malthusian ceiling,” conditions in which fertility and death are at par, giving a society experiencing neither population growth nor population decline. Usually, population does not remain static; about the point that the Malthusian ceiling is reached, elite overproduction leads to too many chiefs, not enough Indians, and political instability leads to lower economic productivity which leads to population decline. Generally, the political stability that made it possible for a society to reach its maximum economic productivity eventually leads it to stagnation and decline. Rarely does a society just stagnate, however; competition between elites, in the case that the territory is no longer expanding, tends toward the greater employment of hawk strategies, which are zero- and frequently negative-sum. Then again, given there was no positive-sum game available to be played, it is only rational (from the perspective of an individual elite) to employ this hawk strategy. Enough of these hawk strategies, and eventually your social cohesion corrodes and the overall level of economic productivity falls with it, reducing many elites to poverty and many of those who were in poverty to starvation.

The decades following the moment when a society reaches its Malthusian ceiling tend to be Interesting Times, with the splintering of political factions, changes of government, and mass population movements. These oscillations between population growth and decline is what Peter Turchin terms a secular cycle. These secular cycles are tied to population and productivity, with relevant influence by external forces (for instance, the wholesale invasion and subjugation by an external force will abort a secular cycle). The upswing is the integrative phase and the downswing the disintegrative phase. Disintegrative phases do not always precipitate complete social dissolution, but typically people will be poorer, crime and war will be more likely, and generally it just isn’t as much fun.

We can grant that Malthus certainly did not see the Industrial Revolution coming, but we mustn’t let that obscure the truth he uncovered. The Industrial Revolution brought a historically unprecedented increase in economic productivity, but it did not suddenly bring us to a point of post-scarcity where population size has no influence on median wealth, inequality, or social stability. The overall increase of economic productivity was large, but at the end of the day it was only finite, and unless productivity growth continued at such a rate, population growth would inevitably catch up. Yes, we moved the Malthusian ceiling much higher, but it’s still there as much as ever.

Has productivity growth kept up with population growth over the last few decades? I’ll admit that I haven’t figured out the best way to measure the relationship of productivity and population (GDP? energy use? further analysis will take place), but it is certainly true that not all increases in population have equal marginal product. Sometimes, an additional mouth to feed comes without any additional increase in economic productivity. There is a point at which marginal product to population increase is negative. Outside growth to productivity, population will inevitably eat up your gains and reduce everyone to the same levels of poverty as they were in before that initial increase in productivity.

Where are we in the secular cycle, as influenced by the rapid industrialization of the last two centuries? We appear to be reaching peak population growth at the same time as our primary energy sources are becoming more difficult to access. The Millennial generation expects to be poorer than their parents, and it would be unsurprising if their children could expect to be even poorer. Wealth inequality has reached dazzling heights (note, for the uninitiated; I see nothing wrong with inequality per se, nor is inequality anything but epiphenomenal to the underlying causes) and it doesn’t appear that it will fall any time soon. There is an overabundance of elites and aspirational elites, and their means of whittling each other down is becoming increasingly hawkish. In short, based on back of the envelope calculations comparing the above described framework to present conditions, we are about to enter a disintegrative phase of the secular cycle.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,611 other followers